Wisconsin Governor Survives Recall Attempt in Setback for Faculty Unions

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who took office in 2010, was forced into a recall election in part because of a backlash against him among labor interests.
June 05, 2012

Wisconsin voters have elected to keep Gov. Scott Walker, whose efforts to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of public-college faculty members and other state workers have made him a rising star in the Republican party while triggering a backlash against him among labor interests.

As returns in a special recall election came in Tuesday night, Governor Walker was claiming 54 percent of the vote, soundly defeating his Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee.

The outcome represents a severe setback for the state's public-college faculty unions, which had played a major role in the recall campaign. With Governor Walker remaining in office, there is little chance that state lawmakers will repeal the limits on public employees' bargaining rights that he pushed through Wisconsin's Legislature last year.

In related recall elections held in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican, easily defeated her Democratic challenger, Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and a leader in the opposition to Governor Walker's efforts to restrict public employees' collective-bargaining rights.

Two of three Republican state senators who were the targets of recall elections won, and a Republican candidate won a fourth seat that was left open when the Republican senator who held it resigned in the face of a recall vote. The loss of one Republican seat is enough to cause the Wisconsin Senate, which had been evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, to narrowly tilt Democratic.

No members of the state's Assembly, which is dominated by Republicans, were subject to recall votes, although all of its seats are in play in November.

The recall election represented a rematch between Mr. Walker and Mr. Barrett, who had vied for the governor's office in 2010. In that race, Mr. Walker received 52 percent of the vote, easily topping the 46 percent garnered by Mr. Barrett.

Mr. Walker is only the third governor in the nation's history to be subject to a recall election, and is the first to survive one. His high profile among Republicans, and a widespread perception that the outcome of the recall election could foreshadow the outcome of this year's presidential election, drew intense interest in the Wisconsin race on the part of national political organizations.

In terms of overall campaign donations, Governor Walker raised seven times as much as Mr. Barrett and also had a considerable edge in terms of expenditures by outside groups on campaign ads supporting him. Mr. Barrett's campaign focused on trying to win through a more-effective get-out-the-vote operation.

Among those heavily involved in the recall effort were campus affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The national political-action committees of the two unions each donated $43,128—the maximum allowable under Wisconsin state law—to Mr. Barrett's campaign, and some of the unions' affiliates in other states dispatched members to assist the recall campaign.

Faculty unions were especially invested in the recall effort because the legislation Governor Walker championed last year stripped faculty and academic-staff unions in the University of Wisconsin system of the collective-bargaining rights they had won just two years earlier. That legislation also contained a provision—subject to a continuing court battle—that, if allowed to remain in effect, would require annual recertification votes for most of the public-employee unions that had retained their collective-bargaining rights, including those representing employees of the state's technical colleges.

Among unions representing college employees, the Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin at Madison stood out as having not formally supported Mr. Barrett. Although the teaching assistants' union was not covered by last year's changes in state law stripping faculty and academic staff of their collective-bargaining rights, the assistants' union nonetheless no longer functions as a collective-bargaining unit. Its leaders chose not to attempt a recertification vote last year because they did not think they could meet a requirement that their union win the support of a majority of the roughly 3,000 graduate students on the campus.

The membership of the teaching assistants' association narrowly voted last month to withhold their endorsement of Mr. Barrett in response to actions he took, as Milwaukee mayor, to reduce the benefits paid to that city's workers. Nevertheless, many members of the teaching assistants' union were heavily involved in aiding the recall effort, its co-president, Matt Reiter, said in an interview this week.

Correction (June 6, 2012, 11:50 a.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly said that four Republican state senators who were the targets of recall votes survived. In fact, three senators were up for recall, and a fourth seat was empty. Late poll results showed that one of the three senators lost, and the empty seat was won by the Republican candidate. The text has been corrected.